Shunsho Katsukawa was one of the great masters of ukiyo-e. As founder of the Katsukawa School, he was a pivotal print artist, accomplished painter, and influential teacher. Born in 1726, little is known about Shunsho’s personal life. He came to Edo to study haiku, poetry, and painting under Shunsui Miyagawa. It is thought that Shunsho began to design actor prints (yakusha-e) around 1768. In these prints, he turned away from the idealized figures of the Torii School in favor of recognizable subjects. From subtle facial features to characteristic expressions, Shunsho brought theatrical stars to life through realistic portraiture. As he focused on the individual actor rather than the role portrayed, Shunsho marked a distinct shift in the actor print genre. From his hosoban actor portraits to his illustrated books, Shunsho introduced individualism to yakusha-e. This legacy flourished under talented students such as Shuncho, Shunko, Shunei, and Shunro (aka Hokusai).
Shunsho’s success reached beyond yakusha-e. He explored other ukiyo-e genres, producing many shunga albums, illustrated books, warrior prints, and images of sumo wrestlers throughout his career. He was also highly successful in the field of bijin-ga, or “pictures of beautiful women,” and devoted his later years to painting for elite patrons. Shunsho Katsukawa’s early prints are not signed. Instead, they are sealed with the character “hayashi” enclosed within the shape of a bronze jar (tsubo). This seal belonged to Shichiemon Hayashiya, the publisher with whom Shunsho lived with for a time.